Noting the Contextual Differences of International Relations around the World: A Taiwanese Perspective


Rooted in western history, International Relations (IR) is a unique discipline that relies heavily on European and American experiences as its basis for making sense of the world. While different worldviews distinguish separate traditions within western IR, such a condition still fails to address the diversity of experiences that lies outside the West, or what is traditionally also recognized as the South – Asia, Africa and Latin America. With globalization encouraging individuals to make efforts towards recognizing and better understanding a world of complexities, the article Teaching IR to the Global South: Some Reflections and Insights published in the special issue of Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional (Volume 59, 2/2016) presents the case that the teaching of IR today should take into account contextual differences and attempt to introduce topics that are most relevant to the diverse student body. Such efforts may challenge the instructor to move out of the comfort zone established by western IR and ponder over non-traditional issues such as economic development, gender, food and water, health and sanitation and their implications for international relations, particularly for the global south and its relationship with the global north.

While the article preaches for a turn towards regions beyond the West, its argument does not dismiss the fact that western theories and experiences are still useful to a certain extent. Mainstream IR theories such as realism, liberalism and constructivism are still important and relevant in providing explanations for various events in international relations. However, the article seeks to point out the dangers of excessive dependence on the theories alone in understanding a world that is ever diversified. As Lily Ling notes from a gender perspective, traditional IR theories display the characteristic of “hyper masculine whiteness” (HEW), a construct that has unfortunately become unquestioned and accepted over time. On the other hand, reliance on the construct of the sovereign state may fail to recognize the fact that there is a diversity of agencies in the international system and not all states share the same national priorities.

The article notes that two aspects of the content of IR should be emphasized today, namely the connection between history, geography and current affairs and the link or dislink between realities and alternative readings. Both aspects should be stressed in the classroom in order to raise student awareness of the broad range of possible interpretations outside mainstream discussions. The claim stems from the argument that besides the endowment of knowledge about the world, an important purpose of IR is to improve the critical thinking ability of students. By placing a state in its unique historical, geographical and cultural context – sometimes perhaps in relation to the student body – students will be encouraged to critically consider the different conditions and scenarios facing a particular state. Such training may be beneficial in strengthening the analytical and problem solving ability of students in the long run.

The article draws on the case of Taiwan as an example that demonstrates how traditional theories and thinking cannot fully capture the issues the island nation faces in international relations. For example, as a de facto state that lost international recognition of its sovereign status in the 1970s, Taiwan or the Republic of China poses difficulties for the pristine assumption of IR hinged on the state and state interests. In the case of Taiwan – a state turned non-state that remains controversial in terms of its sovereign status – how the island should prioritize its interests becomes a matter of debate. From the perspective of realist logic, Taiwan, like all other states, should continue to invest in its military capabilities. Yet as many observers have argued, in the face of China, a state that is exponentially larger and stronger, Taiwan’s efforts to increase its military strength may be futile attempts that generate more dismay than optimism. In such case, the question raised becomes whether Taiwan should continue to follow traditional realist wisdom, or reconsider the island’s unique historical, geographical and cultural context and formulate its own context specific set of priorities.

The example of Taiwan may be useful for states in the global south that have generally been excluded from the discussions of mainstream IR. Such a claim does not automatically call for a Marxist turn or an emphasis on peripheral theories in the discipline but rather, preach for a higher awareness of the diversity of international relations and the pitfalls of adopting perceptions that have become uncontested truths over time. The global south can better benefit from the discipline of IR by learning the analytical tools and experiences offered by the West and re-applying what mainstream IR has to offer to its particular conditions.

This is the discussion presented in the article Teaching IR to the Global South: Some Reflections and Insights, published in the special issue Many worlds, many theories? (Volume 59, N. 2) of the Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional.

Read the article:

Liu, Tony Tai-Ting. (2016). Teaching IR to the Global South: Some Reflections and Insights. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 59(2), e004. Epub September 05, 2016.

Tony Tai-Ting Liu is Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Contemporary China Studies, National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan.

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